The Man With The Iron Fists
Production notes state that director (and hip-hop producer) RZA and horror director Eli Roth ("Hostel") worked for two years on the script for their martial arts period film "The Man With The Iron Fists." I wonder if that boiled down to an email a day or if they each wrote a line every other day. Because two years to create what appears to be a confused mess of an afterthought is a long time to work on something this bad.
Why is it bad? For starters, the characters are one-dimensional with important backstories coming out at the end of the (thankfully) brief 90-minute running time; no one has much of a character arc or an interesting character at all. They are all one-note caricatures with the women (aside from Lucy Liu and Grace Huang) being relegated to moaning prostitutes that giggle and make sex noises... even when they aren’t having sex. The tone of the film is all over the place, sometimes trying to parody the martial arts exploitation films of the 1970s and 1980s and other times trying to be ultra-serious and cool. The trouble is, it comes across like the wet dream of Hollywood party-boys who are hopelessly trying to mimic Tarantino and failing miserably.
The plot, if you can call it that, concerns a small village in Feudal China called "the Jungle." The local blacksmith (RZA) (who, coincidentally, is black and is named "Blacksmith") is a man with a past, droopy apathetic eyes, and the speaking pattern of a guy from the hood. Like... the modern day hood. I mean, seriously. (It doesn’t help that the soundtrack of the film is all hip-hop tracks produced by The RZA.)
He’s in love with a local prostitute named Lady Silk (the gorgeous Jamie Chung) who is saving money to get away from her madam, Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu). Meanwhile, there’s some nonsense between a gang named the Lions headed by Gold Lion (Kuan Tai Chen) who is killed by the Hyena gang. Gold Lion’s son Zen-Yi (Rick Yune) also known as The X-Blade because of his suit of blades, is told of his father’s death and journeys back to the Jungle to avenge it.
There’s also something about a treasure of Gold that (I think) the Gemini clan was guarding. They stop to eat in the Jungle and are attacked by the Lions. But there’s also a mystery man shooting everyone with mercury. So that happens and the Lions steal the gold and everything is in chaos. Oh, and Russell Crowe shows up as Jack Knife (get it?) a roly-poly man (he’s dangerously close to being able to portray Gerard Depardieu) who likes to do ridiculously dirty things to women and has a cool knife/gun that he guts people with. He’s in town for mysterious reasons as well.
Clearly everyone wants the gold and all these gangs, clans and weird characters are against each other. This results in a number of bloody fights that include over-the-top violence and impossible stunts. I will say that the stunts are spectacular and fun with Rick Yune being a standout and the Geminis (Huang and Andrew Lin) being a duo to reckon with. There’s also a guy called the Brass Body (WWF superstar Dave Bautista) who can turn his body into brass at will making him indestructible. So aside from just being a martial arts movie, it’s also a bit of fantasy as well. Because Roth and RZA just wouldn’t have a kick-ass movie if they didn’t throw in every cool idea they ever had. Like... ever. It’s las though it was written by two bratty kids hopped up on Pixie Stix, sitting around their tree house making up stories for the impressionable neighbor kids.
The acting here is less than stellar with Byron Mann as Silver Lion and oddly Lucy Liu (normally very good) two of the worst. But here’s the thing. There are moments where it seems as though their performances were purposely bad as a salute to the rocky genre they are mimicking. The problem is, the way they are directed you can’t tell if they are trying to parody the genre or they are just terrible. In fact, many of the actors don’t even seem as though they are being directed. It’s as if they just showed up for the day to have some dress-up fun with friends. And let’s go back to Russell Crowe. WTF was he thinking? His character is hardly around so it’s not like the role was meaty enough to warrant his saying "yes," but here he is, putting his head between a girls legs and wielding a spinning knife.
The whole movie is just a head-scratcher. To spoof the genre while giving it a loving nod would have been a lot of fun. But it’s clear that first-time director RZA has a hard time navigating that fine line. Tarantino is brilliant with the mix and you can simply watch "Kill Bill" to see how the mixture of deft filmmaking, reverence of a genre, and enough of a wink-wink/nudge-nudge allows it all to work brilliantly. Here it’s just loud, noisy, and chaotic. That said, I’d watch Rick Yune take out a group of bad guys any day of the week although RZA could have had him shirtless. C’mon. Give us something.